Civil Rights Activist Joan C. Browning visited Marshall this week as part of constitution week. The Freedom Rider told her story on the 50th anniversary of the rides.
Joan C. Browning was a Freedom Rider. The Riders were a group of men and women who boarded buses and trains headed for the Deep South in 1961 to test the 1960 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in interstate public facilities. What makes Browning’s perspective different though is that she’s Caucasian.
“I just felt lucky to see what was going to happen and to be able to choose a role for me in it and to be able to be in a group with people that I knew would support me. I felt very lucky, I really felt like I was in the right place doing the right thing and whatever happened then or later, for one time in my life I did the right thing,” Browning said.
Browning was at Marshall University this week as part of Constitution Week. While on campus she spoke to classes about what her experiences were like.
“I was one of the few white people that was involved in the black freedom struggle in the south in the early 1960’s and the sit-in movement and I was a Freedom Rider and picketed and things of that nature. I’m sort of that oddity that you don’t expect when you read about the civil rights movement,” Browning said.
And she gave two lectures, one on civic responsibility and the other on the relationship between the constitution and civil rights.
Browning joined the Freedom Riders after attending an all-black Methodist Church in Milledgeville, Georgia. As a result of her church attendance, she was thrown out of Georgia State College for Women. In June of 1961, she moved to Atlanta where she discovered the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that would later organize the Freedom Rides. Browning says it excites her when she sees young people following standing up for things they believe in.
“When the occupy movement first started I was very excited, I thought it was possibly the beginning of a mass resurgence of young people and empower people to take to the streets literally. I’m at the point now where I can’t march very long, but I can be in the back cheering people on and doing whatever I can to encourage it and that’s one reason I talk to young people is to try to encourage them,” Browning said.
Browning volunteered with SNCC on projects in Georgia and Alabama, worked in human relations and anti-poverty programs throughout the sixties and was an organizer of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
In the end, Browning said she still speaks to classes and groups because she wants people to know no matter their situation they still have power.
“I want them to know that young people have power, poor people have power, old people have power, and you know the great panthers came out of the model of the freedom rides. I want people to feel like this is your world and you have a chance and a right to make it the way you want it to and find other people and don’t give up, don’t give in,” Browning said.
Browning now lives in Greenbrier County and has a degree from West Virginia State University.